Saturday, 6 April 2013

Aesthetic - concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty: from Greek aisthÄ“tikos, from aisthÄ“ta ‘perceptible things’, from aisthanomai ‘perceive’. 1

(...) when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light. 2

The painting "Girl Asleep at a Table" by Jan Vermeer was completed during a transitional, and possibly definitive, period in the development of his art. He was working within the bounds of a style of contemporary genre painting that drew upon scenes of daily life, or rather figures, tropes, and narratives of a partially fictive life recognisable to a contemporary and local audience as 'everyday'. These scenic narratives were for the most part richly laced with anecdote and allegory, containing visual clues to their inherent or implied meaning in the form and disposition of characters and objects that often also had a symbolic value. They were usually painted with meticulous attention to detail and verisimilitude, enhancing their illusion of immediacy and lending power and persuasiveness to their message by dint of their correspondence with reality, whilst at the same time indulging the contemporary taste for pictures that portrayed the material fulness of life. Paintings of this type were read and understood in a manner that allowed an audience conversant in the signs and symbols of a particular visual-linguistic-conceptual exchange to both identify the presence of a lightly or more subtly encrypted literal meaning, and to decipher it at leisure. Allegorical, moral, religious, philosophical, literary or other coded narratives - and their unlocking - were part of the paintings’ intelligibility and enjoyment.

But it might be true to say that in Vermeer's work, beginning around this time, the meaning whose presence we assume to be tacitly inherent is certainly present in potential, but is not so readily deciphered, or rendered explicit. Indeed, this enigmatic quality has become part of his paintings’ appeal. But that does not mean simply to say that after three centuries we do not understand their cryptic language. In fact, the opposite may be true: that we can ‘understand’ them in another way because we both know and do not know that language.

The painting in question shows a young woman seated on a chair at a table, her head resting on one elbow and hand, her other hand upon the table. In front of her the table-top presents a bowl of fruit half-covered with a semi-transparent drape, a wine jug, a smaller bowl, an overturned goblet, a wine glass, two “nut-like objects”,3 a knife, and a fork or spoon. In the foreground, on the near end of the table, is a woven rug, of a type still used in Delft today as table covers. Behind the girl is the wall of the room, the door slightly ajar affording a glimpse of a corridor and a further room beyond. On the wall behind the girl are a painting, a garment hung on the wall, and a map. Also in the foreground is part of another chair, with a cushion upon it.

Vermeer. Girl Asleep at a Table. c1657.

The picture was originally listed as “‘a drunken, sleeping maid ...’”.4 This title would seem to have been allotted after Vermeer’s death at a sale of his patron’s collection of artworks, and would have been in keeping with the painting genre of his day: there are other pictorial examples of maids appearing slightly drunk, with their chores in chaos, and the implied response would be one of moral reproach and wry humour.

But there are alternative possible interpretations of the narrative portrayed in the scene. There are two wine vessels on the table, a small glass near the girl’s hand, and another - a larger and overturned ‘roemer’ - closer to the spectator. There is also the empty chair, its back towards the girl. These could indicate that she has quite recently been in the company of a male companion (men conventionally drank from ‘roemers’), who has now left the room. This narrative could give the painting another, and slightly different, literal meaning. Again, this new scenario is open to speculation: has the girl been slighted; is she simply left alone and intoxicated; have the two quarrelled?

Further clues to the apparent meaning have been painted over. X-rays have revealed the form of a dog in the doorway, and the portrait of a man in what later became the mirror in the far room. These both have symbolic significance: the mirror and dog, especially when taken in conjunction with the fragment of a painting behind the girl, suggest associations with Venus and Cupid. But equally, they could suggest faithfulness and prudence. Key to the whole narrative is the expression on the girl’s face. Is she asleep or awake? “The question must be, are her eyes closed or downcast?”5 The former in Vermeer’s day would indeed suggest idleness or ‘sloth’; but the latter was known to represent ‘melancholia’, a more sensitive and elevated state of mind altogether.6

A possible indication as to his intention might lie in a very early painting by Vermeer, and his choice of subject for one of only two known works depicting mythological or biblical stories - “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.” The biblical narrative recounts how when Christ visited the home of the two sisters, Mary sat at his feet listening to him speak, while Martha busied herself in preparing a meal. When Martha came and complained that Mary was not helping with the preparations, Christ gently rebuked her, saying that her younger sister was paying attention to what really mattered, and was not (for the moment) distracted by the lesser, and ultimately transient, material concerns of life, as Martha had allowed herself to be. 

When I first saw the painting “Girl Asleep ...” in New York, I was struck by its overall calm, and the girl’s face appeared to me to be one of quiet and repose, not sleep or drunkenness. Only later did I learn of the possible alternative interpretations. Whatever the reading, it seems to me that Vermeer, if he had wished, could have made the meaning clearer by making her face more singular and unequivocal in expression. But he did not. In fact there is a strong case for suspecting that he may have left the girl’s condition, as expressed in her face, deliberately enigmatic: thus rendering the painting’s narrative open to doubt and its meaning ambiguous. Such artfulness would not have been excessive in his day.

In this respect the "Girl Asleep ..." takes on a kind of axial significance, and may be important for understanding some of Vermeer’s later work, and its inherent appeal. As his work progresses, the signs and symbols assume a more certain ambiguity, or ambivalence. The dual, sometimes opposing nature of their inference now becomes more striking than any one definitive meaning could possibly be, and in accomplishing this Vermeer does two interrelated things: he suspends the literal meaning in a gap of contemplative possibility, and at the same time he liberates the verisimilitude of the painting from its direct relation to a linguistic, conceptual, or otherwise constructed, 'reality'. Upon these two effects in turn occurs an overlapping and similarly double effect: the moment in time - fixed in the pictorial semblance of a scene whose configuration in reality is known to be shifting and transitory - is freed from its sequential and teleological relation to time as narrative duration; and just as this is effected through suspending a particular construct of thought affecting the visible world - a cleansing, so to speak, of perception - so the artwork's careful and sympathetic truthfulness to that world is freed from the notion of semblance to its ‘reality’. The aesthetic becomes instead - as if it were a lens of immeasurable clarity - access to a reality of form hitherto obscured within an illusory semblance of itself: a truth hidden in plain sight, because of its formlessness. In presenting the narrative as countering and undermining its own certainty; the visible as something more lucid than accepted appearance; and a world more real in its purity than quotidian ‘reality’; the artwork here invokes an expanded vision that can be both seen and felt, beyond perhaps even its own self-expression and affirmation as 'art' and the ‘aesthetic’.

Remarkably, this comes close to a purely ‘modernist’ paradigm of aesthetic form, which may perhaps explain why Vermeer’s work was largely overlooked until more recent times. We know, of course, that regardless of the subject and its appended accoutrements, painters such as Vermeer would have been naturally preoccupied with questions of composition, balance, colour etc., the formal properties of a visually coherent aesthetic. But added to this, it may be that through his later paintings we glimpse something further, and perhaps deeper: The light of perception itself, the clear and constant lens of perfection, a ‘true’ vision of reality.


1 Oxford English Dictionary.

2 King James Bible, Cambridge  edition, Matthew 6:22.

3 Nash, J., Vermeer (London: Scala Publications, 1991), p. 56.

4 Ibid., p. 58.

5 Ibid., p. 62.

6 I am indebted to John Nash’s excellent book for much of the above research into the painting, its artist, and its historical context.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Grassom

All rights reserved